The Yellow Mountain Fire Tower sits atop the tallest peak in the Cowee Mountains at 5,127 feet and features one of the most isolated lookout towers in the state of North Carolina. Its craggy summit provides panoramic views of Panthertown Valley, Whiteside Mountain, Shortoff Mountain, and Rabun Bald that will certainly leave you breathless. Built by Forest Service in 1934, this National Historic Landmark served as a vital lookout tower for three decades until being decommissioned in 1969. The only way to publicly access the tower is by the 6.2-mile Yellow Mountain Trail, but the tower has several shorter private access points that open up frequently throughout the year for the public to use.
Yellow Mountain Trail | 2.0 Miles Roundtrip
(Via 199 Cloud Catcher Lane)
Yellow Mountain Shortcut Trailhead Location | Google Maps
(199 Cloud Catcher Lane)
Full path of 12.1 mile Yellow Mountain Trail with the Cloud Catcher Lane short cut highlighted in purple. The road to the right of the summit is Zeb Buchanan Rd, which was the original route used by the U.S. Forest Service when the tower was operational.
Once a common sight throughout the Appalachian Mountains, stone lookout towers like the Yellow Mountain Fire Tower have all but disappeared from the landscape, making the ones still standing true gems worth seeking out and admiring. Standing watch over the Cowee Mountains for nearly a century, this piece of Carolina mountain heritage has become a destination hike for peak baggers, nature enthusiasts, photographers, and hikers alike. Having planned an extensive trip to the Highlands & Franklin area to see the Wayah Bald Lookout Tower, scale Whiteside Mountain, and visit Silver Run Falls, Whitewater Falls, Glenn Falls, Secret Falls, and the waterfalls of NC281 left me little time to attempt the 12-mile roundtrip Yellow Mountain Trail up to the fire tower. Thankfully, some extensive research yielded information on several private access points to the tower that are much shorter, including a road that travels all the way up to the summit. After some trial and error I was able to locate a little known private road that periodically allows the public to access an official Forest Service trailhead on the north side of Yellow Mountain.
Parking area at the end of Cloud Catcher Lane with trailhead to the Yellow Mountain Fire Tower.
This short-cut has been folded into the Nantahala National Forest Trail system, but only while Cloud Catcher Lane remains open to the public.
The Cloudcatcher Lane access point to the Yellow Mountain Fire Tower is a closely guarded secret amongst locals. There are no signs advertising the trailhead within this private mountain community. While the private landowners are known to periodically close the road and are in talks to possibly gate it to control traffic, it remains open to visitors so long as people are respectful and practice Leave No Trace Principles. From Mill Creek Road, we veered onto Cloud Catcher Lane and followed the narrow gravel road for 0.75 miles to a dead end in the wood. This is the small parking area for the trail. You should see a wide path at the far end of the clearing that leads to a brown Forest Service trailhead marker.
It is a short, but brutal 700 ft up from this point to the summit.
The trail spends most its route under ragged and weathered tunnels of rhododendron such as these.
Summiting Yellow Mountain (1.0 Mile)
From here, the hike up to the summit of Yellow Mountain and the fire tower is a short 1.0 mile. The catch is that this trail climbs 700 feet in a series of switchback up the north side of the mountain. That is a ton of elevation gain, but it is a small price to pay to avoid hiking the 12.1 mile Yellow Mountain Trail which has a whooping 2,959 ft of elevation gain. For obvious reasons, that trail is rated amongst one of the toughest in North Carolina and a bucket list hike for serious outdoors people. In totality, it takes an average of 6-7 hours to complete. From this shortcut, it’ll only take us 45 minutes to reach the summit or an hour tops. From the parking area, we followed the wide path through a clearing where we spotted the brown Forest Service trail marker, letting us know we were on the right path.
The Cloud Catcher Lane short-cut eventually meets the Yellow Mountain Trail three quarters of the way up.
A sneak peak of the awesome views to come!
The majority of this trail travels through tunnels of rhododendrons that are so thick they block out the early morning sun. If you have hiked the Craggy Gardens Trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway then this will look familiar. At 5,127 feet in elevation, this mountain sees a lot of extreme and punishing weather. Clear and sunny days can quickly turn into torrential downpours at a moments notice up here. It is part of the reason why the short, stubby bushes that make up most of the flora at this elevation look so gnarled and stunted. Near the 0.75 mile mark, the trail enters a clearing surrounded by hedges of rhododendron where the Cloud Catcher Lane Trail meets up with the Yellow Mountain Trail and the Zeb Buchanan Rd Trail. Turn LEFT at this intersection.
Falling into disrepair after being decommissioned in the 1960's, the tower underwent a 7 year restoration by Forest Service employees and volunteers.
Once a common sight in the southern Appalachians, this style of fire tower has all but disappeared.
Yellow Mountain Fire Tower
At this point the path spirals up the south side of the mountain for a short 100 yards until it emerges from the forest directly in front of the fire tower. For those who don’t know, Zeb Buchanan Road goes all the way up to the top of Yellow Mountain and stops just 0.15 miles short of the summit. Today, access to this National Forest Rd goes through a private community that prohibits visitors from using it to access the tower. It is the original path used by the Forest Service to send supplies up to the Watchmen stationed here. Towards the latter part of this towers life, a telephone and power line were strung up to bring some modern convinces to towers inhabitants.
Can't think of a better place to catch a sunrise or sunset from in Western North Carolina. The summit is open to backcountry campers, some of whom throw up hammocks inside the towers observation deck.
Early morning fog rolling over Big Green Mtn. and Toxaway Mtn. in the background.
I had something akin to a religious experience the first time I laid eyes on the Yellow Mountain Fire Tower. This structure is absolutely beautiful. In my opinion, it looks like what a traditional mountain fire tower “should look like”. While most of the lookout and fire towers people see these days are the second generation “all steel towers”, this is a true original. Very early lookouts were mostly made of wood and/or logs and didn't usually use any uniform design as they were crafted with whatever materials were on site at the time. The tower was styled around a D-6 (District 6) model with a 14x14 concrete base that acts as the first floor and entrance to the floor above. On the second floor there is a wooden cab with a steep pyramid roof. This is where the Watchmen lived. Once a common sight in the southern Appalachians, this design has all but disappeared.
On clear days you can see the tallest peaks of the Nantahala Mountains to the west across the Little Tennessee River Valley, most notably Standing Indian, Wayah Bald, and Wesser Bald.
Unlike the original structure, the cab was opened up and a cat walk spanning the entire circumference of the tower was added to the second story during renovations.
Unused for 20 years, the tower fell into disrepair and was all but scheduled to be demolished when a Forest Service Ranger by the name of Ron Carnes nominated it for the National Historic Lookout Register. Staff from the Highland Ranger District of the Nantahala National Forest along with volunteers spearheaded a 7 year restoration effort which was finished in 1992. Unlike the original structure, the cab was opened up and a cat walk spanning the entire circumference of the tower was added to the second story. A ladder reaching the second story was added to the outside and a white metal roof replaced the original bright red one. Going up the steps to the catwalk and observation platform, we could see a near 360* view of Panthertown Valley, Whiteside Mountain, Shortoff Mountain, and Rabun Bald all the way in Georgia. On clear days you can see the tallest peaks of the Nantahala Mountains to the west across the Little Tennessee River Valley, most notably Standing Indian, Wayah Bald, and Wesser Bald.
Peak Baggers will want to find this summit badge just to the northeast of the tower.
Yellow Mountain Fire Tower standing watch over the Cowee Mountains at 5,127 ft.
Some tall hedges on the summits northeast corner block what would be a direct view of Lake Glenville. On the southwest corner of the summit you’ll find the original power line and pole that modernized this tower in the 1950’s. While we’re only here for the afternoon, hikers are known to camp on the summit and even string up a hammock inside of the cab. As for us, this adventure has been everything I had hoped and a little bit more. Next up, we’re taking a short detour south into Georgia to explore the famous Tallulah Gorge State Park. One of the most spectacular canyons in the eastern United States, Tallulah Gorges two mile long and nearly 1,000 feet deep canyon is home to a half dozen major waterfalls and cascades. Located in the historic town of Tallulah Falls, the gorge is listed as one of the seven wonders of Georgia. Stay tuned for this upcoming article and as always, see ya’ll on the trails!